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Inside Motley Crue’s Live Excess: From Roller Coaster Drums to Fire-Spitting Bass

“You build a production so people will go, ‘Holy f–k!'” says Nikki Sixx.

"You build a production so people will go, 'Holy f--k!'" says Nikki Sixx.

Indestructible glam metal icons Mötley Crüe are currently on the Final Tour, a series of more than 150 shows capping nearly three and a half decades of decadence, concluding with a New Year’s Eve throwdown at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. If you haven’t caught the tour thus far, let bassist Nikki Sixx describe “Kickstart My Heart,” the 1989 hit that has been serving as the main set closer.

“At some point toward the end of it, Tommy [Lee] raises up 40 feet in the air. Mick [Mars] is on a platform about 20 feet high. Vince [Neil] and I are flying over the crowd on these big transformer arms, going all the way out to the nosebleeds. I’m spitting blood. The transformer arms are shooting sparks. There’s a giant burning pentagram. The whole stage is engulfed in flames. There are explosions everywhere. We’re dropping more confetti than you’ve ever seen. And we’re doing it all while playing one of the biggest hits of our career,” Sixx tells Rolling Stone and then pauses.

“That’s how you put on a show.”

Certainly, if there’s one thing Sixx and his Crüe-mates know, it’s how to cause a scene. The band have always positioned their live show as something of a grand-scale orgy of audio-visual depravity: spinning drum kits, acrobats, motorcycles and explosions galore.

For their final tour, the band — who, even by indulgent Eighties standards, managed to scale uncharted highs and lows of excess — has now surpassed even their own extravagant history. The Final Tour offers up a slew of high-tech and ridiculously outsized production elements, among them a rotating drum kit that travels on a multi-directional roller coaster track; a flamethrower bass that spits fire 30 feet into the air; a state-of-the-art light show; imaginative stage gags; and as much pyro, cryo and confetti as can be crammed into an arena. Just how much pyro?

“I couldn’t even give you a number,” admits Mötley Crüe production manager Robert Long, who’s been with the band since 2008. “It’s just very excessive. Every show has about 375 pyro cues, and each cue is full of everything you can imagine — fire, fireworks, explosions. We go through a 50-gallon drum of isopar maybe every other night, and that’s just one of four different liquid flame units we’re using onstage. But when it comes to fire, the goal is basically to have as much as you can possibly get up there, within safe limits.”

“In the old days, you could have some lights, some different guitars, a few wardrobe changes, an explosion or two,” Sixx explains. “Now, it’s 2015. We live in a different world. People want to document what they see, and they want to share it, and they want to do it fast. So we like to create things that make them pull out their phones.

On the Final Tour, that experience is delivered via a massive operation that travels from town to town in 12 trucks and nine buses, overseen by a crew of close to 100 people (as well as an extra hundred or so local stage hands at each stop).

“You build a production so people will go, ‘Holy fuck!'” he says. “I don’t ever want anybody to see something I’m involved in and go, ‘Yeah, that was pretty cool. …’ I’m not interested in ‘pretty cool.’ There’s no room for that. There’s room for ‘holy fuck’ and nothing else.”

Back in their Hollywood club days in the early 1980s, the band’s special-effects budget may have been smaller, but the ideas were no less imaginative. Onstage, Sixx would routinely smear his knee-high leather boots with pyro gel or rubbing alcohol, and then Neil would come over and light him up.

“Vince and Tommy would practice setting me on fire in the apartment we all shared in Hollywood,” Sixx recalls. “I used to hang out by this dumpster behind a local pyro company to get tips on how to do it. They’d be like, ‘What d’ya want, kid?’ And I’d say, ‘Can you show me this? Can you show me that?’ I guess I was very inquisitive about pyro. I still am.”

Singer Vince Neil, for his part, had his own show-stopping gimmick, which involved using a chainsaw to sever a mannequin’s head from its body. “With Mötley, it’s never been a question of, ‘Should we do it?'” Sixx says. “It was always, yes. Should Vince chainsaw the head off a mannequin filled with blood during a song called ‘Piece of Your Action’? Yes. Of course he should! Who wouldn’t? Well, 99.99 percent of all other bands wouldn’t. But we would.”

Vince Neil performing live onstage in 1986 Peter Still/Redferns/Getty

By the mid Eighties, the band was routinely attempting things onstage that had never been seen in rock & roll. The tour for Theatre of Pain, the 1985 album that, with MTV hits like “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and “Home Sweet Home,” graduated the Crüe to arena headliners, was accompanied by a stage show that saw Tommy Lee’s kit mounted to a platform that would rotate forward almost 90 degrees, to allow audiences a bird’s-eye view of his performance.

“Tommy’s a great drummer, and coming out of that punk-rock and new-wave period, there weren’t a lot of musicians and personalities like him at the time,” Sixx says. “He was very young, and he wanted to have a drum solo where he could just slam it. And his thing was, ‘How can I take things to the next level? How can I create my own sort of mini-production inside the main production?’ So for the Theatre of Pain tour we figured out how to take the drum riser and have it lean all the way forward, so that the fans could actually watch him play his drum solo. And that led into, ‘OK, what else can we do?'”

From there, the band developed one of the more notorious drum contraptions in rock history — Lee’s kit-in-a-cage from the 1987-1988 Girls, Girls, Girls tour, which would raise him high above the stage and spin him head over heels. The ’89-’90 Dr. Feelgood jaunt, meanwhile, had Lee and his drums traveling out over the crowd. For Mötley’s 2011 summer tour, his kit was placed inside a Ferris wheel-like contraption known as “the 360” or “the Loop,” an idea conceived in part by Long.

“I remember being a 16-year-old kid and going to the Girls tour and seeing Tommy spin around. I was in awe,” Long says. “So when I started working with the band I said, ‘We’ve gotta bring back some kind of big drum gag. And what we came up with was the Loop. Then, after playing with that thing for 200 or so shows, Tommy and I were sitting around one day and he said to me, ‘You know, I really want to get to front of house [with my drums] …’ That’s what he had always wanted to do. He never stopped talking about it.”

Lee’s desire to travel the length of an arena while bashing away on his kit led to the development of the Crüecifly. Unleashed for the Final Tour, it sees him negotiate 155 feet of roller coaster track in every position — forwards, backwards, even upside down.

“Tommy used to always say, ‘Man, I wanna be on a roller coaster!'” Sixx recalls. “And we would laugh and go, ‘That’s awesome … but impossible.’ But we’ve been investing a lot of time and money in these things for decades, because we believe they’re an important part of our show. We don’t need all this stuff, but if we’re able to do it, we’re going to do it.”

Tommy Lee performs during Motley Crue: The Final Tour ‘All Good Things Must Come to an End’ in Brooklyn on August 12th, 2015. Kevin Mazur/Getty

The Crüecifly was constructed by the Las Vegas-based overhead rigging specialists Show Group Production Services. Says Long, “We sketched out about eight different versions, and it took a long time to get it right. But we did it. And the whole thing is wireless, which is what’s so ingenious about it. If you were to look at it up close you’d see all these wireless packs strapped down to it. We’re also able to make any necessary adjustments — when we played Madison Square Garden, for instance, the scoreboard there is so big we had to shorten the track and keep it lower to the ground. Which wound up being very cool, because when Tommy would flip upside down, it looked like he was crowd surfing.”

Early on, another one of those adjustments involved just how many times Lee would actually rotate on his journey. “He’s never gotten sick on the Crüecifly, but we have had to decrease the number of flips,” Long says. “In the beginning there were just too many. You spend too much time upside down, with all that blood rushing to your head, and it becomes pretty hard to play …”

The other big set piece in the Final Tour shows is Sixx’s “flamethrower bass,” a Mad Max-ian contraption that he straps on for “Shout at the Devil.” To pull off the trick, Sixx’s instrument is fitted with a unit that taps into an offstage fuel reserve, allowing him to “shoot” flames from his bass roughly 30 feet in the air. “The whole thing weighs almost 100 pounds,” Sixx says of the apparatus. “And the tubing that hangs off it also kind of drags me down. So I have to be in shape — I’ve been doing a lot of leg workouts, a lot of squats. Because you can’t look like, ‘Oh my god, this thing’s so heavy. …’ You have to be able to control it, you have to be aware of what you’re doing. You have to be able to move around. And then you still have to play the song.”

In essence, creating what appears to be a moment of unbridled danger “comes with a whole list of responsibilities,” Sixx says. “You have to know where your bandmates are. You have to know where the audience begins. If you’re outside, you have to be aware of any wind and if you’re indoors, of any breeze from the air conditioning units. And it has to be dark enough onstage for everyone to see the flame, but also bright enough for me to see where I’m going.”

More than anything else, Sixx has to be conscious of not lighting himself on fire. “The thing is hot, for sure,” he says. “At that point in the show I’m pretty much soaking wet, but by the end of the song the right side of my hair is completely dry. Also, because the flame shoots out right next to my hand, sometimes it will come back at me and touch a finger, or burn a knuckle. So it’s a whole thing.”

Nikki Sixx performs during Motley Crue: The Final Tour ‘All Good Things Must Come to an End’ in Brooklyn on August 12th, 2015. Kevin Mazur/Getty

And yet, despite all this very literal playing with fire, Long reports that “we’ve actually never really had any mishaps.” He laughs. “I mean, we’ve stranded a few flying girls before, but we can always pull them in. But from a safety aspect we keep everything really tight. Even with Nikki’s flamethrower, we trigger it remotely, so all he has to do is aim. We have total control over everything. So if Nikki’s too close to the audience, or too close to Mick — because Mick’s always looking down — we can just stop.”

“We’re not winging it,” Sixx adds. “Because if you wing it, someone’s gonna get hurt. So all this stuff we do, it’s supposed to look pretty flawless and effortless, but at its core, there’s research. There’s development. There are licenses. There’s experience. There’s practice. There’s professionalism. Even though we hope it comes off as, ‘That guy’s crazy! His bass is shooting fire,’ it’s all very strategic and very methodical. And it’s all in the service of, ‘This is how we want to present Mötley Crüe.'”

As the Final Tour — and with it, Mötley Crüe’s more than three decades on the road — winds down, Long says that ideas about how to best present the band continue to be hatched. “Every night I’m still watching the show and asking, ‘How do we improve this?’ ‘How can we change that?'”

As for what might be in the works for the grand finale on New Year’s Eve? Long isn’t saying. “There’s a lot of stuff on paper for December 31st, but I can’t reveal too much. I guess the only thing I can say is there will be a hell of a lot more confetti.

“But, trust me, it’ll be a great show,” he assures. “Because the general principle with Mötley Crüe has always been, ‘If it’s impossible, that’s when the work starts.'”